Driving innovation: How far should the CIO go?



Innovation is the lifeblood of enterprise success, but how can CIOs enable their business to drive it, and is it an area where they should lead or one where they should play a supporting role?

Innovation is the lifeblood of business and increasingly a key part of the CIO’s role. IDG’s 2020 State of the CIO research shows that 67% of CIOs believe the creation of new revenue generating initiatives is among their job responsibilities, and that they’re creating business case scenarios and innovation-focused teams to match.

Recent research for Forrester concurs, noting that as advanced firms grow more innovation-centric, CIOs are having to work harder to handle increasingly complex digital ecosystems and lead initiatives.

“CIOs should prepare for this new challenge,” the report says, “by facilitating collaboration across business-unit-level product and process-oriented innovation teams” and by implementing “innovation platforms that connect business-unit level innovation with emerging technology research and long horizon, disruptive efforts.”

Yet there’s confusion about the CIO’s role in innovation. Is it something they support through IT strategy, operations, and new capabilities, or something they actively lead? Should the CIO push their technology vision, or provide a platform for the board and business units to develop their own? Could it even be the case that the CIO needs to juggle all these functions, pivoting between headliner and support roles as the business requires?

The innovation leader

“The CIO job is getting really hard,” Irving Tyler, analyst and Research Vice President at Gartner told CIO.com in May. Today’s CIOs, he explained, are expected to understand digital design, apply product management disciplines, help change the culture of their enterprise, and think about the consequences of privacy laws everywhere in the world.

“All of those things are big, complicated, complex issues that CIOs never had to think about.” To meet these new demands, CIOs are having to build new team structures and operating models, while influencing changes in practice, decision-making, and enterprise culture. As Tyler suggested, “Technology is going to be a big part of how all of that is done.”

This is, of course, the CIO’s core focus, and the CIO will have the best grip on the products, platforms, and services that can fuel future innovation. Forrester has suggested that progressive CIOs will bring workforce analytics and cognitive science – AI and machine learning – to bear on the employee experience, to ease friction and maximize productivity. Similarly, CIOs are also working with cloud platforms that can enhance the business’s agility, and enable new applications and services to come to market faster.

For forward-thinking CIOs, this could mean building multi-platform, multi-vendor ecosystems that embrace interoperability and open data initiatives. They’ll combine the Adobe Experience Platform with Microsoft Dynamics 365, Power BI, and Microsoft Azure to harness an array of rich, real-time data streams to generate insights and create a live, 360-degree customer view. They’ll understand how these technologies can be used to both deliver a better customer experience and empower employees, and they’ll communicate the possibilities to the business and the board.

Collaboration and support

Yet CIOs also understand that they can’t do this on their own. As Myles F. Suer wrote in CIO last year, the CIO “can’t be the only pusher for innovation… There are clearly ideas that should originate in IT, especially around business capabilities. There are other initiatives that make sense to be originated in business but nevertheless, require strong IT partnership. While it varies from situation to situation, the ‘I’ in CIO needs to range from Innovation to Inspiration, to Instigation to Implementation.”

In other words, while CIOs are placed to drive innovation, their greater role may be in providing space and a strong foundation on which others can develop their own ideas. The innovation-centric CIO might have a binder full of ideas and presentation topics, but they’ll also be learning and looking to nurture innovation from within the business teams.

...while CIOs are placed to drive innovation, their greater role may be in providing space and a strong foundation on which others can develop their own ideas.

This support involves change at the structural, cultural, process, and technology levels, so that business teams, developers, and IT teams have the tools and platforms they need to innovate, plus the freedom to make full use of them. It could mean breaking data out of departmental silos – and doing the same for people, processes, and workflows. Most of all, it could mean enabling a “fail fast” culture, where teams can work on experimental or disruptive projects without fear. Executives at Sony once told Suer that the company never judged a product team until after the second product release, because the first release was an opportunity to perfect the team’s understanding of its customers’ requirements. This approach is even more appropriate in an era where personalized customer journeys benefit from rich, real-time feedback loops.

Of course, there are situations where failure is not an option, and every business has mission-critical operations where innovation must take second place. A recent IDG survey shows that in a post-pandemic climate, CIOs are under pressure to improve the performance of existing IT operations and drive down costs, even more than drive business innovation and lead change efforts. Much of this pressure – and the CIO’s scope to innovate – will come down to their relationship with the board and CEO.

This year has demonstrated how much resilience matters, yet, resilience and innovation aren’t opposing demands. Recently, Aseem Chandra, Senior Vice President for Adobe’s Experience Cloud, has talked of how change has a positive impact on a business’s resilience.

“Digitizing an organization’s processes doesn’t just mean that the company’s workforce is able to effectively work from home,” he says. “Digital maturity is about building a technology foundation to empower teams to work, pivot, and iterate rapidly no matter where they are.”

Juggling roles

In short, the CIO needs to optimize, find efficiencies, and maintain, but they also need to inform, educate, and influence. They need to partner up with other business leaders, particularly the CFO and CMO, to promote their common interests.

The good news is that while CIOs work to balance their leading and supporting roles, today’s cloud platforms give them the breathing room to do so. In the words of Amnesty International CIO, John Gillespie, “The hard work of the past 20 years means that the underlying technology is no longer where you need to spend your time and effort. The move to the cloud has liberated me and my colleagues.” Cloud architectures can simultaneously work to optimize existing operations, while supporting innovation. They provide accessible, affordable platforms for everything from IoT and business intelligence, to analytics, machine learning, and massive-scale data operations. By harnessing this power, and explaining its potential, CIOs can influence the board and demonstrate that innovation works.

Without the CIO’s operational know-how, there’s no foundation for business units to develop their own innovation strategy, yet without the CIO leading from the front and acting as an agent of change, the business could miss out. The CIO supports innovation, but sometimes they must drive it too, becoming, as Miles F. Suer puts it, “champions of innovation with their peers” who can “hold the flashlight while everyone progresses down the chosen path.”